Master Li's Brave New Age

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ANTHONY SPAETHJust after sunrise, in virtually every park and town square in China, clusters of people glide in unison through a set of tranquil, ritualized movements known as qigong, prosaically translated as breathing exercises but representing an alluring blend of spiritualism and physical exertion. There are few sights more common across China's vast breadth.But a buzz has developed around one particular breathing master whose exercises, his followers believe, can not only cure cancer and turn white hair black again, but also provide moral and spiritual guidance. Millions of Chinese are his adherents--so many that the government is visibly concerned. The qigong master, 47-year-old Li Hongzhi, departed China last year for the West and has since expanded his following worldwide. But Li's adherents back home pulled off one of the most astounding protests in recent Chinese history. To register their displeasure over government treatment of the group, 10,000 of Li's followers suddenly assembled on April 25 on the sidewalks around Zhongnanhai, the high-security complex that houses China's top leaders, and sat in meditative postures along a 2-km stretch. The demonstration was peaceful, entirely unexpected and the largest organized show of opposition since the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. It ended quietly, with the protesters even picking up their own litter, but only after 12 hours, an audience within Zhongnanhai with Premier Zhu Rongji and his aides, and a government promise that the group's grievances would be addressed within three days.

China isn't sure what to do with Li and his group, known as Falun Gong (literally, Law of the Wheel Breathing Exercise). Li estimates that 100 million people perform his exercises and buy his books and audio- and videocassettes. The numbers are impossible to verify, but it's not hard to locate Falun Gong devotees. Advance notice of the group's meetings--in such scattered places as New York, Geneva and Singapore--can be found on dozens of websites maintained by followers. In Beijing, thousands gather virtually every day in open parks to stand in disciplined ranks, eyes closed, and rotate their hands to Li's tape-recorded voice. I read the Bible and a few Buddhist scriptures but settled on Falun Gong, says Han Zhixiong, 43, a Beijing environmental engineer who has done the exercises for four years. It seemed to be the most scientific. Li and his followers deny the group is religious or political in nature, and one of their p.r. mantras is that nothing in Falun Gong is organized, including meetings and finances. They describe the recent protest in Beijing as having been spontaneous, as was an angry display in the city of Tianjin the preceding day, in which Falun Gong practitioners held a lively protest at the offices of a magazine that had ridiculed the group. (Local police had to disperse that gathering.)

Followers particularly dislike being dubbed a cult, stressing that Falun Gong improves health, cures illness, promotes moral character and gives new meaning to life. But not all of the disciples in China are aware of how Master Li's own thoughts have evolved over the years. Li speaks of himself in startlingly ethereal terms. You can think of me as a human being, he told Time in New York City, where he is now based. Asked if he comes from Earth, Li replied: I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it. But what Li offers is just about as good as it gets. He says that Westerners believe in reaching heaven only after death. In the East, Li asserts, one can achieve a divine status ... while one is still alive. To many, such visions sound cult-like--and the numbers suggest Li is the leader of the largest such group in the world.

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With Falun Gong's mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi
For Chinese officials, Falun Gong is either an unexpected headache or, even more troubling, the latest example of a populace growing restive. Public protests have become more numerous over the past several years. They usually take the form of small-scale demonstrations in the countryside--very rarely in the capital--involving workers who haven't been paid by their state-owned factories, or citizens complaining about arbitrary taxes or local corruption. In 1998 there were more than 2,000 bomb blasts, according to China's Academy of Social Sciences. So far this year, seven bombings have occurred, killing 33 people and injuring more than 100. A meeting of the Communist Party Politburo last week, held to discuss China's application to join the World Trade Organization, ended up focusing on Falun Gong, and Premier Zhu met with members of the Beijing municipal government to consider the group's demands. Beijing has yet to sanction Falun Gong officially as a martial arts group, which is what its members want. To slow the organization's growth, authorities banned publication of Li's books in 1996, although bootleg copies are readily available throughout China.

Little is known about Master Li himself. He comes from China's remote, mountainous Jilin province, and he reportedly worked as a government clerk and a trumpet player in a theatrical troupe. Li claims to have started studying qigong at the age of four, instructed by teachers in two different schools, though he won't name them or even place them geographically, except to say they were in the mountains. The most intriguing aspect of the Falun Gong phenomenon is how Li transmuted himself from humble breathing master--a figure who normally influences only as many people as he can personally train--to a leader known to millions. It was a transition made possible largely through the power of the printed word and, especially, the Internet.

Conditions couldn't have been riper than in China. Maoism and Marxism are on the wane as free-market practices become increasingly entrenched, and millions of Chinese seem to be searching for something to fill the ideological and spiritual void. Buddhism has come back in a big way--officials estimate that up to 300 million people adhere to a form of the religion--along with Christianity, charismatic cults and secret societies. In the early 1990s, China's officials loosened regulations on qigong groups, which they judged to be localized and unthreatening. Thousands of breathing masters stepped forward to help people control the body's qi, or vital energy. Quacks abound--at least two people were arrested last year, one in Beijing for occult activities, the other in Shanghai for alleged murder. In March, a top figure in a sect called Zhu Shen Jiao, or Supreme Spirit, was jailed in Hunan province for helping the group defraud locals of cash and tens of thousand of kilos of grain. (Prosecutors said he also persuaded female followers, including girls younger than 14, to have sex with the group's leader. Zhu Shen Jiao, which has 10,000 members, apparently has also called for an overthrow of China's government.) But sects continue to mushroom along with a belief in qigong and its powers. In China's cities, hospital patients frequently complain of qi ailments. The term Qi Gong-Induced Psychosis was recently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of America's psychiatric professionals, where it is described as a culturally bound disorder with painful psychosomatic symptoms.

According to Master Li, he started Falun Gong reluctantly in 1992. He says he had no interest in doing what other masters do, but those mysterious teachers in the mountains insisted. He recalls: They said, 'What you do will be different. These people who are teaching how to cure illnesses and teaching fitness are paving the road for your coming out.' Li published his first book, China Falun Gong, in the mid-1990s, and it became a bestseller. In 1997 Li decided to apply for immigration to the U.S. because, he says, China's security organs were getting concerned about the rising number of his adherents.

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With Falun Gong's mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi
Since Li left China last year, his followers have only multiplied, especially outside China, thanks to the Internet. Falun Gong is apparently organized in small cells of acolytes. Sophie Xiao, a 32-year-old investment analyst in Hong Kong, is one believer. Xiao's enfeebled mother in Beijing had gotten well through Falun Gong, and she sent her daughter Master Li's books. I was always so worried, Xiao says. I was constantly exhausted. When she too experienced rejuvenation, she passed along the books to several friends. I finished the books in four days, says a neighbor, a Mrs. Hui. My husband came home and said, 'Why do you look so good?' For me, it's the philosophy. It's like finding the answers to all the problems in my life. Mrs. Hui's once-gray hair has turned black, her husband has taken up Falun Gong and their six-year-old daughter has memorized the master's first book. If that seems unlikely, consider a story widely circulating among Falun Gong practitioners: an impoverished, illiterate 80-year-old acolyte in Beijing suddenly found herself able to read--after staring at a copy of one of Li's books for a length of time.

Practitioners are reluctant to discuss Falun Gong's finances. It is said that certain believers anonymously bankroll the movement's big get-togethers in the U.S. and Switzerland. Whether Li has central control of the organization is hazy, and perhaps deliberately so. It's a very savvy group, says Nancy Chen, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who is writing a book on qigong sects. It has to be flexible so that it can evolve or react to political whims. It's a delicate balancing act: the group must appear powerful in order to attract members, but also unthreatening to the government in Beijing.

Whether the faithful are ready for the master's new message is an intriguing question. Li says that extraterrestrials are among us. Some look like ghosts. One type, he says, looks like a human but has a nose that is made of bone. The aliens have introduced machinery and computers to Earth in an attempt to corrupt mankind, get control over the human body and create an entirely cloned world. Master Li's teachings are, apparently, an antidote. It seems that a great many of the converted haven't imbibed these higher parts of the Falun Gong doctrine. But it's also clear that many are looking for more than good health.

At the 12-hour demonstration in Beijing last week, a remarkable scene occurred around sunset. A group of devotees stood up in unison, faced the setting sun and started clapping. Do you see it? Do you see it? they cried. Yes I do, I do! A vision had appeared to them above the hazy Beijing skyline. What it was, they wouldn't say. Master Li teaches that devotees, with proper study and practice, can levitate and see the future--a knack that would be useful for China's leaders facing a messianic figure with millions of followers.

Reported by William Dowell/New York, Jaime A. FlorCruz and Tim McCahill/Beijing and Lori Reese/Hong Kong

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With Falun Gong's mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi